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Oak Bay yacht club rescues swamped Victoria adaptive sailing program

Victoria Disabled Sailing Association sees successful summer programming

Sailboats slipping in and out of an Oak Bay yacht club with a coach boat in tow isn’t an unusual sight.

What was different this summer at the Royal Victoria Yacht Club, was the increase in sailors embarking on adapted outings as the Victoria Disabled Sailing Association (DSA) settled in for a spell.

The adaptive program for people with disabilities traversed rough waters the past few years between the pandemic and CFB Esquimalt revamping the program’s former home base.

It almost disappeared from existence earlier this year, said Jim Russell, chair of the five-person board. Since the 1990s DSA had a home on the base with the Canadian Forces Sailing Association (CFSA) which moved this spring to make way for remediation and future development of the previous site.

That left a vulnerable class of sailors with no home.

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“When it became obvious to us we couldn’t run a 2022 sailing program out of CFSA one of the options was to see if the yacht club was amenable,” Russell said. A Royal Victoria Yacht Club member of more than two decades, he’s spent much of his life sailing and racing there.

Russell reached out to club sailing director and head coach Stephen McBride, who saw it as a great opportunity.

It was important to “right” the program, McBride said. “We felt we should step up, even a little bit, to help facilitate that program.”

With a signed memorandum and appropriate insurance in place, they set out to ensure folks of all abilities had an opportunity to set sail – alongside the 700 summer sailing programs the yacht club offers for sailors of all ages. Club coaches McBride, Hannah Stevens and Fraser Smith added it to their workload.

“They really put their heart and souls into it,” Russell said. “All of us were really scrambling to put whatever pieces we could put in place to get this thing off the ground.”

They started running adaptive sailing sessions Friday through Sunday and Steven really took the helm, McBride said.

Hannah Steven, RVYC sailing staff, and her companion sailor, a DSA client, cruise in Cadboro Bay aboard Freedom a Martin 16 sailboat. (Courtesy Disabled Sailing Association Victoria)
Hannah Steven, RVYC sailing staff, and her companion sailor, a DSA client, cruise in Cadboro Bay aboard Freedom a Martin 16 sailboat. (Courtesy Disabled Sailing Association Victoria)

A passionate ambassador of the sport, Steven said she saw it as an opportunity to do as little or as much as they wanted.

She called around to ensure organizations such as the Cridge Centre, Victoria’s autism network and the Deaf community knew about the opportunity.

“We ended up booking out the entire summer in the first two weeks,” Steven said, adding it was one of her favourite things about this summer.

“We got to bring individuals into sailing who maybe wouldn’t have had that opportunity otherwise,” she said. “It’s the coolest thing. It’s so fun.”

On the DSA end, they hauled boats out of storage – two Martin 16s designed to be used by people with accessibility issues and two other smaller vessels also designed to be adaptable, as well as a zodiac coach boat.

“If you start thinking about the freedom and empowerment … to get out and sail, it’s beyond me how delightful and empowering that would be,” Russell said.

Nanaimo sailor Douglas Hugill, who is deaf, knows the feeling well. He helped organize a weekend sail for 15 people from Oak Bay waters and it was far from his first voyage.

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Hugill wanted to sail his whole life but attended school in a South African town far from lakes and seaside. After school, he did start windsurfing, and upon immigrating to Canada and landing on the West Coast, Hugill naturally took up kayaking around Vancouver, Nanaimo and Ladysmith.

After retirement, he started taking American Sailing Association courses in Los Angeles. Starting in September 2021, he took a series of courses – one-day programs aboard a Capri 22 and another on a 35-foot catamaran as well as five nights on a 34-foot Catalina. With course completion under his belt, Hugill set sail out of Jericho in Vancouver with the Adaptive Sailing Association of B.C. That program ran from May until the end of September when he was introduced to the DSA in Victoria.

Hugill brought all that experience with him when the group set sail this summer. He said it was amazing to see a breakthrough for some of them who had not sailed before. They may have wondered if they would be able to sail, and knowing it’s possible, they want to go again.

He was impressed with the fact Steven knew American Sign Language with others eager to learn. The Martin 16, he explained, is a great vessel for an individual who is deaf to steer while volunteers or coaches watch and instruct. He plans to continue volunteering and sailing with both the Vancouver and Victoria adaptive sailing programs.

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Russell said he saw the joy in other interactions as well. He recalled watching Steven set sail with a young woman with autism who is non-verbal. Not far from the dock the two high-fived and set off grinning ear-to-ear.

The Royal Victoria Yacht Club is happy to host, McBride said, and go with the flow as the association adapts to finding a new home.

“We want to see it facilitated as long as it needs to be so that it can continue and grow going forward,” he said.

In an ideal world, Russell sees the club having two home bases – CFSA and RVYC – but there are interim goals to achieve.

The DSA isn’t out of the weeds yet as it looks to gain independence under the B.C. Societies Act while eyeballing 2023 as the year to enhance the board and add administrative staff.

To learn more about participation on the board or the water contact Russell at

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Christine van Reeuwyk

About the Author: Christine van Reeuwyk

I'm dedicated to serving the community of Oak Bay as a senior journalist with the Greater Victoria news team.
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